Is customer service exclusive to the developed world?

The customer is king, unless you are in Ghana and a good percentage of men actually are kings. Take a look at TripAdvisor and you’ll see one of the biggest complaints about hotels, tours, restaurants, or stores in Ghana is the lack of customer service. Is customer service a luxury that just isn’t available in the developing world?

In Ghana we have a five different styles of customer service: the scowler, the napper, the indifferent, the lazy, and the real thing.

The scowler – You sit down at a restaurant and look around for the waiter. You wait for about 10 minutes before you notice someone, you beckon for them to come over. They scowl at you and walk over slowly. You are clearly disturbing them by being there. The scowler also acts offended when you ask questions about anything and gets upset when you question billing.
The napper – You enter a shop and find the store owner fast asleep at 10am. You try to wake them, but clearly their sleep is more important than a sale.
The indifferent – You call a hotel to make an inquiry. The person on the other side of the phone sounds like a robot. Or you go to a restaurant and order from the menu, the waiter doesn’t even care enough to look at you in the face. Most of the time the shop attendant, waiter, or hotel staff just seems lack luster or comatose.
The lazy – You go to a hotel and the front desk person has to finish their phone conversation first, then they turn to you and ask what do you want. They barely move an inch and just point you where you need to go, that is if they have enough energy to lift their arm.

With the first four all of them act like you are interfering with their peaceful text messaging session. You are a burden on them. How dare you demand something, like a drink, when they could be doing nothing and getting paid for it.

The real thing – On occasion, you’ll find a hotel or a restaurant that is attentive, respectful, and trying. Most of the time these places will charge much more than the competition and are targeted towards Westerners.

Why is customer service missing from this country? Is it inherent in the culture? I don’t think so. Ghanaians treat elders with great respect. They also respect their family greatly. You’ll see a Ghanaian go out of her way to make sure guests at her home are treated properly. You are always offered a chair, a drink, and an invitation to the meal. Is it because the service industry is relatively new to Ghana? Local shop owners are generally good to their customers, so how is it lost in every other service industry? Does it have to do with Westerners? In order to get to the bottom of this mystery, let’s start at the beginning.

History of customer service

Where does customer service come from? Is it something we inherently adopted over the centuries? Has it evolved with us? The purpose of customer service is to provide an added value to a product or service. Just like goodwill is important to a brand, so is the experience of purchasing a product or service. We either want a hassle-free experience or to be treated like a king. Often customer service is as aspect of a purchase that is largely ignored, and that’s a good thing. Customer service is like logistics, it should be seamless and something that you don’t notice. We notice customer service when it is exceptional or when it severely lacking. But where does customer service originate from?

The origins of customer service aren’t clear cut, but the industrial revolution and the ability to mass produce products are a key factor. In the early 1900s, service started becoming important because people now had options. For example, mass production of clothing and the advent of the department store helped customer service take hold. Going to a department store was an event, just as much as it was shopping. With the massive expansion of credit, people had more money to throw around. Stores could set themselves apart by offering something different and appealing. Consumers began to understand that purchasing a product could be just as important as owning it. Later in the 20th century, the advent of toll-free numbers changed customer service again. It changed the way we interact with a company. But overall, customer service has its roots in giving the customer an added value to their product or service. The importance focused on standing out in a crowd of similar options.

Ghana hasn’t had an industrial revolution. Clothing is still made by hand, food is still cooked over a fire, and there’s no real manufacturing here. There’s been no real improvement on division of labor or mass production in the past century. Is this a reason why customer service hasn’t sprouted here? Because Ghana hasn’t followed the same path as the Western world did during the Industrial Revolution? Or is customer service also tied to culture?

Globalization has increasingly made our planet seem smaller and smaller. 70 years ago, if you told someone that Coca-Cola would be widely consumed in a small village in Africa, would people have believed you? Globalization is responsible for spreading ideas as well as products. While you can see the spread of Ghanaian music, fabric, and attitude in other countries, one thing that hasn’t spread to Ghana is customer service. I’d argue that customer service with its history rooted in Western cultures is largely a developed world phenomenon. It has spread via globalization to other parts of the world, but hasn’t made it to the villages in Africa like the ubiquitous Coke bottle. Customer service is valued by all Americans now, not just those still alive to remember when it became increasingly common. It has become ingrained in our expectations as consumers. America truly is a consumer driven society, probably because of the rise of the middle class and our propensity for keeping up with the Joneses. Being part of the middle class means maintaining a certain lifestyle as well as income level. Ghana, on the other hand, has a small middle class (although it is growing) and the society values family above consumerism. Customer service has become an expectation in American culture. It’s no longer a concept, but part of our society. In a society like Ghana, which has different values and expectations, customer service isn’t inherent.

Having Options

There’s a lot of variety and options in Ghana for products, but you tend to see the exact same shops. You have your regular convenience like store with dried goods and household items. Then you have the rice stand, the fufu chop bar, nicer polo shirt shops, and household goods shops. There are very few Walmart or Target-like places you can go to buy a variety of goods. There are so many of the same shops and products that no particular shop really stands out, even the pricing rarely varies. So you’d think they would need to do something to make themselves different from all the competition. For example, I became friends with my fabric seller because she had the biggest selection of batik fabric. She specialized in it; her entire shop was devoted to one particular type of fabric. I always came to her stand because she was different from everyone else.

Do Ghanaians not value customer service because they know there are so many other options out there? You don’t have to worry about service because you can just walk down the street and find the same thing. If you have a specialty shop and carry something no one else does in town, you definitely don’t need customer service because people will come there for it anyway, right? Loyalty isn’t based on experience, it’s based on other factors. In Ghana, you tend to purchase from the same stores every time. Especially for common goods. It’s likely you’ll go to the one closest to you. If you are unfamiliar with an area, I’ve noticed Ghanaians tend to stop at the bigger shops, because it is likelier they will have what you need. There’s also a tendency to be loyal to shops that are primarily owned by your friends and family. You don’t just go there to pick up bread, you go there to chat. So: location, family loyalty, and variety. Once you’ve picked your favorite shop, you always return there, it is very rare to see people going to different shops. You could get the worst service possible at these shops, but you’d still return. No one wants to walk a long distance in the morning to just go grab a loaf of bread because the shop on the corner treats you poorly.

Most shopping is done at the market for food products, here is where you do see a sliver of customer service. You always return to the market lady who is friendly, dashes you some extra veggies, and gives you fair prices. There are a lot of options in the market, so trying out market ladies is typical. Once you find a quality seller though, you stick with her for the rest of your time. Going to another seller once you’ve established loyalty is a big taboo. Options are clearly not the driving factor in customer service like they were in America’s customer service revolution.

Globalization’s Role

Customer service has slowly creeped into Ghana, but it hasn’t spread. Globalization has carried it over here on the wings of airplanes full of Americans and Europeans who expect a certain level of service. Westerners, with their intolerance for anything less than average, raised hell with hotels and restaurants. Once Westerners started refusing to pay for inferior service, Ghanaians probably started taking notice. Slowly, the idea started to spread that the people with the money demand certain things. If you can provide a certain level of service that’s superior to the competition, Westerners will pay more for it. The rich Ghanaians started to take notice, and like most people in Ghana, wanted what the Westerners had. Customer service has infiltrated Accra and you can now find luxury hotels, such as the Moevenpick, Golden Tulip, and Labadi Beach Hotel. These hotels cater primarily towards Westerners and now rich West Africans. They even quote their prices in dollars and euros. These hotels offer Western standards, which aren’t as common outside the capital, such as: fitness centers, free internet, and pools. They also charge a premium price as well, almost triple what you’d pay for the same hotel in America. People are willing to pay though because the other option is comparable to a Motel 6.

Outside of the capital you experience something completely different. For example, I stayed at a hotel on the beach here in Ghana. The price of the room was fairly steep given the condition of the room, difficulty getting there, and amenities available. The hotel offered a volunteer discount and negotiated the price prior to me arriving. The price and dates were clearly communicated in a text message. Upon arriving, the hotel did not know we were supposed to be staying there. Then when it came time to pay, despite having proof of negotiated prices, the hotel staff fought with me and refused to honor the price. The basics of customer service would dictate that the hotel should respect the customer and work with them to ensure a mutually favorable decision can be reached. Treating the customer poorly can result in loss of future business via word of mouth. The Ghanaian hotel staff didn’t care either way, it wasn’t their concern. Their concern was focused primarily on getting money now. The concept of opportunity cost is not taught in Ghana.

Customer service just isn’t in Ghanaians’ DNA like it is in the Western world. We’ve evolved to embrace it with open arms, but it is still a foreign concept in Ghana. Just like enjoying milk and cookies after school, Ghanaians don’t grow up with the same experiences Americans have.

In conclusion, I do believe that customer service is a developed world idea. Globalization is working to spread the concept to the far reaches of even the remotest village, but the pace isn’t fast enough to please Western expectations. If more Westerners lived within the cultural expectations of the country they are visiting and not asserting our standards and expectations onto others, would the concept of customer service change? For now though, we can just sit back and watch as customer service quietly extends into Ghana.


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